Agriculture: The Source of Africa’s Strength

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Feb. 22, 2021 6 min read

Agriculture has long been the backbone of the African economy. An estimated 65% of the African labor force works in agriculture, accounting for 32% of the African GDP. Africa is also home to approximately 60% of the earth’s uncultivated arable land. Africa’s agricultural sector can do more than just help the continent achieve nutritional self-sufficiency — it could turn African into the world’s breadbasket and an economic powerhouse.

At the moment, however, this potential is still mostly untapped. Agricultural productivity in Africa is the lowest in the world, and the continent is increasingly reliant on food imports. This leaves Africa vulnerable to shocks in the supply chain, which became clear during the COVID pandemic.

This state of affairs makes millions of Africans more vulnerable to food insecurity, which has negative impacts on both long- and short-term development. Food security is fundamental to all human endeavors, including education, science, art and technology. Without it, school performance, work productivity, and overall health all decline.

With improvements in farming techniques, however, Africa could double or even triple grain production, boosting GDP and improving livelihoods. More importantly, enhanced food security can support the health and education of Africans, laying the foundation for a strong and prosperous future.

The Role of Engineers in Advancing African Agriculture

Achieving the gains necessary for Africa’s agricultural sector to reach its full potential is easier said than done. It will require big investments in both financing and knowledge — especially when it comes to engineering expertise. Various fields of engineering knowledge are critical for the agricultural sector:

● Mechanical engineers play a vital role in developing and maintaining machinery and equipment for both crop production and processing.

● Chemical engineers can develop better fertilizers and pesticides using materials that are available and appropriate for Africa.

● Hydraulic engineers are needed to help with the design and installation of irrigation systems.

● Software engineers have developed many apps and analytical tools in recent years that enhance agricultural productivity.

Increasing agricultural productivity will also require many improvements in general infrastructure, including roads and bridges to transport goods more effectively to and from farms, markets, ports, and processing facilities.

Agriculture as a Driver of Africa’s Economic Growth

Since so many Africans are employed in the agriculture sector, improving incomes in agriculture is one of the most powerful and effective ways to boost Africa’s economy.

One of the reasons Africa is so dependent on food imports is the high cost of local produce. As African cities expand, farmland is converted into residential and commercial properties. This means that food must be brought to the city from more remote areas. Due to the lack of paved roads in many regions, the cost of transporting food can be very high.

Lack of infrastructure contributes to the already high costs that go along with lower productivity.

Since agriculture outside Africa is often more efficient, this can lead to a situation where imported food is cheaper than locally produced food. Since farmers have difficulty selling their food, their income decreases, meaning they are not able to invest in the materials needed to improve productivity.

There are many ways to improve the competitiveness of African produce without investing in heavy infrastructure. Some simple improvements in post-harvest storage and transport technology can lead to significant and immediate improvements in overall farm efficiency.

Lower production and transport costs mean that African farmers can offer their produce in cities at more competitive prices. This can increase income and health for consumers, who will have cheaper and fresher food, and income for farmers. This extra wealth means that both producers and consumers will spend more, generating more jobs for everyone.

AgriTech for Africa

Agritech has been a hot sector in Africa for several years — a recent report found that Africa’s agritech market, which is still 90% untapped, could be worth over $2 billion. There is huge potential for mobile software to improve the livelihoods of farmers in many ways.

Apps have been released around the African continent that can help farmers do everything from making recommendations on the best time to plant seeds to identifying plant illnesses and finding the best treatments.

Cutting Out the Middlemen

There are other factors besides infrastructure that raise costs for consumers and lower profits for farmers. African farmers face many challenges in finding the best prices for their produce. Most are too busy with farm work to spend a lot of time searching for the best prices on the market, so instead they rely on middlemen. This represents a serious inefficiency in the supply chain.

Several years ago, I was personally involved with a startup developing an app to help farmers in Ghana find buyers for their produce. In the course of this work, it became clear to me that there is great potential for software engineers to improve life for rural Africans.

Securing Financing for African Farmers

Financing is essential for projects of all shapes and sizes in Africa, but there are special challenges when it comes to agriculture. Most farmers are located in rural areas which are underserved by financial institutions.

Mobile phone based fintech apps are one way to bridge this gap. Fintech is booming in Africa, which means that traditional bank financing may soon be obsolete. Financing based on AI is also cheaper than bank financing, meaning financing may soon become both more affordable and accessible for African farmers.

This is another area with high potential to help farmers afford the materials necessary to increase productivity. The high potential of these software-based solutions is one reason that Engineer Africa prioritizes improving internet access and connectivity in Africa.

Engineers of the African Diaspora as a Force Multiplier for Development

Engineer Africa’s membership represents a talent pool encompassing many core engineering disciplines that can support the agricultural sector, including agricultural and software engineers. Our community serves as a resource to empower the main development actors in Africa, including governments, NGOs, startups, educational institutions, and community organizations.

By offering expert consulting advice, our members support African agriculture from multiple angles, including agricultural engineering, basic infrastructure development, and software solutions.

Many of our members are originally from Africa, so we can communicate effectively with local actors on the ground, and we also understand Africa’s unique opportunities and challenges.

We are always looking to support partners engaged in high impact projects in Africa, so if you know of a high impact project that could benefit from engineering expertise, don’t hesitate to reach out to us.

You can read more about our efforts in agriculture from our book, The African Diaspora as a Force for Social and Economic Transformation, available for free here.

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